Why Lanka needs a NewsGuard like body to rate media

By Ameen Izzadeen
The double whammy that jolted journalism this week exposed the wide gap between what journalism is and what it should be. In an ideal sense, journalism is a noble vocation, the voice of the voiceless and the watchdog or the fourth estate.
The first blow came when Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating Russia’s alleged involvement in the election of Donald Trump as the United States President, denied an exclusive story carried in the popular news website BuzzFeed, which claims it has a 650 million plus global audience. The story claimed President Trump had advised his embattled former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to the Congress. The story created a major uproar, pushing from the margin to the mainstream calls for the President’s impeachment. The discredited ‘scoop’ had stirred a debate on news websites’ reliability as they forge ahead to be the main source of news in the digital era while engaging in a stiff competition with the traditional mainstream media. Notwithstanding BuzzFeed’s popularity, sensationalism or yellow journalism vindicates Trump and his coterie who scoff at the media, calling them fake news manufacturers.
The second blow to journalism came in the form a Microsoft browser plug-in. On Wednesday, the talk of the media circles was that the Microsoft browser Edge’s NewsGuard plug-in carried a ‘Proceed with Caution’ tag to warn visitors to mailonline, one of the world’s most popular websites. Of course, mailonline, the web arm of Britain’s Daily Mail, questioned the reliability of the NewsGuard rating, joining the Russia government mouthpiece sputnik and several anti-establishment websites which also had questioned the Microsoft’s motive.
NewsGuard, an industry-based body consisting of veteran journalists, in response said the website rated one out of five because the mailonline “generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability”.
When asked by the BBC, NewsGuard’s co-chief executive Gordon Crovitz, who used to oversee the Wall Street Journal’s business and journalism operations, said, “Our journalist analysts always contact websites if they get a negative rating on any of our nine journalistic criteria. The Mail Online chose not to reply.”
According to the watcher of the watchdog, based on its journalistic criteria on credibility and transparency, dozens of news websites had changed their practices to become more reliable sources of news.
Journalism has evolved from tom-tom beaters of the ancient times to today’s ‘fast and quick’ news alerts via mobile devices. Along with the progress evolved professionalism and high standards in news dissemination. Facts are sacred, comments are free. This is basic journalism. But do journalists follow this hallowed principle? To answer this question, one needs to be media literate. Shorn of media literacy, most people swallow, hook, line and sinker, whatever the media churn out.
Take Sri Lanka where virtual anarchy reigns in web and tv journalism. The unsuspecting and ‘innocent’ people, most of them in rural areas, believe as the truth what they hear on radio and television and read in newspapers. They know little about media ownership and possible agendas with which some private media outlets operate. During the recent 52-day political crisis, the partisan manner in which some media outlets presented news made those who had a modicum of media literacy wonder whether these media outlets were against democracy.
If media outlets declare their endorsement of a candidate or a political party, then their bias or partiality is somewhat acceptable. In this case, at least they are honest and have no intention of deceiving their readers, listeners or viewers when they present coloured and loaded news, while serving the agenda of a person or a party, instead of public interest. But even in such instances, their right to be partial is challengeable. This is because journalism, in an ideal sense, is based on a commitment to tell the truth and a journalist’s loyalty is primarily to the people. This is more so in the case of radio and television journalism, because they are given the licence to operate a business based on an air frequency, which is essentially public property given to them by the people through the government as a trust on an undertaking that they would use it to empower the people with truth and correct information.
How many of us are media literate to discern that beneath the façade of independent media, there could be an agenda. Take, for instance, the BBC. A few years after it was founded in 1922, Britain’s post-World War I Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin saw a strategic purpose in BBC’s independence. He believed that if the government preserved the BBC’s independence, it would be much easier for the government to get its way on important questions and use the news outlet to broadcast Government propaganda.
Many private media, too, adopt this strategy. It is easy to sell propaganda as facts, once they earn the reputation as ‘fearless’ newspapers or channels.
Against this backdrop, a NewsGuard like monitoring body is an urgent need in Sri Lanka to protect the people from the poison being dished out by media chefs. Sri Lanka has quality journalists known for their commitment to media freedom and independence. They should come together or be brought together not only to monitor the media, but also to name and shame the errant media outlets, by rating their trustworthiness and warning the people that they generally fail to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability.
This newspaper has started publishing fact checks carried out by Verite Research. They expose the exaggerations politicians make or the falsehood they utter. The Daily Mirror has won much public praise for this new feature on its Page one. But this is an exercise every news outlet should do as a practice.
Fact-checking is part of journalism. Parroting some one’s views or publishing it verbatim is not journalism. If a newsmaker utters a falsehood or makes a claim, it is the journalist’s duty to inform the people of the correct position. Top US media channels do this often, especially with regard to President Trump’s bizarre claims. But sadly this practice is not adopted when Israel makes egregious statements vilifying the Palestinian freedom struggle or reproving Iran.
Also in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion by the US and Britain, most Western media outlets deliberately or otherwise made no effort to fact check the claims about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The well-known war correspondent and media activist John Pilger asked Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist: “What if the freest media in the world had seriously challenged George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims {about the WMDs}, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?”
He replied that if we journalists had done our job “there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq.”
In Sri Lanka, we would have prevented an unconstitutional coup in October last year.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Sri Lanka and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Lanka needs a NewsGuard like body to rate media

  1. Fayaz Moosin says:

    It’s nice to see you use the oft forgotten word ” oversee” instead of ” overlook”, which latters meaning is opposite to intended.. regards fayaz Moosin.

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  2. Robert Lorimer says:

    Whilst nobody can argue that the Sri Lankan press needs some sort of control to ensure more honesty, the idea that News guard is the answer is dangerous. This is control of media by a very bias organ. They may have censored the UK Daily mail but not Fox news for example. And why the silence concerning the US coup in Venezuela. Be careful what you wish for.

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